Deadlock over all-out strike

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Leicester college refuses to negotiate with protesting lecturers unless they return to work first. Steve Hook reports

Leicester college is in the grip of an all-out strike for the second week running as managers refuse to re-open negotiations unless lecturers return to work.

The college's "schools links" programmes for 14 to 16-year-olds have been suspended, but it claims 85 per cent of other classes are being held as normal and that only 120 lecturers are on strike.

However, Natfhe, the lecturers' union, estimates the number on strike to be nearer 300.

As the strike entered its fifth day on Friday last week, just a handful of students arrived at the entrance of the college's Abbey Park campus, where strikers and managers were watching each other across the campus boundary.

The action was called in protest against new contracts reducing holiday entitlement by four days a year, which the college says are required to cover lecturers' professional development and administrative responsibilities.

There is a pound;1,800 one-off payment for those who sign it, but no increase in annual salary. The contracts are voluntary for existing staff but compulsory for new recruits.

As the deadlock continued, Acas, the arbitration service, offered to attempt to mediate a breakthrough. Natfhe says it was acting on its own initiative.

There were signs this week that the college has put pressure on individual staff to return to work. One lecturer, who had paid for tickets for himself and his family to go to Australia on a job exchange, was warned the trip would be cancelled if he refused to return to work.

Russ Escritt, Natfhe's regional secretary, said the case proved managers were prepared to intimidate lecturers to force them to return to work. The college, which admitted making the threat, defended its actions. Its spokesman said: "It is quite right that, if he is not working for the college, we should not pay for him to go overseas. That individual needs to decide whether he wants to be working or not. He is lucky to get the opportunity to work in Australia."

The college stresses it is among those which implemented a nationally-agreed 3.5 per cent pay rise, although the union says this was not announced until after the ballot was held for the walk-out.

Dave Hornsby, branch chairman, said: "I think that was to try and encourage people not to take part in the action. They were saying 'We are very good because we have given you a pay rise we should have given you last August'."

The college refused to allow FE Focus to speak to any students under 19 on campus, claiming they would require parental consent.

But it was happy to provide access to a group of students with learning difficulties who were selected by Ian Robertson, curriculum area manager for continuing studies, an Association for College Management member who opposes the strike.

His colleague Maryann Lowe was among four Natfhe members who resigned from the union after it refused to exempt them from striking because of the special hardship their students would suffer. Mr Hornsby said the union held a meeting with the continuing studies staff in which most said they did not want to be exempted.

The college's spokesman said the lecturers will have to go back to work before talks can begin.

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